The Texans came into the 2012 regular season with high expectations from media members and high hopes from fans who thought of them as a Super Bowl contender. Early on the Texans exceeded those expectations with a 5-0 start that extended to 11-1 with big wins over Denver, Chicago, and Baltimore. There were issues with the pass defense and fans were concerned with the right side of the offensive line, but most still viewed them as one of the leagues elite teams. Then they went to New England and the wheels came off and they've been spiraling out of control ever since. The Patriots slapped them around on a cold Monday night by a 42-14 score, but losing in New England is hardly shocking and by itself not a reason for pushing the panic button. However, following up that loss with two more losses to teams they were favored against has driven Texans fans to the brink of their own cliff if they haven't gone over already.
They are in the playoffs and anyone in the playoffs has a chance to win, but they sure don't seem like a contender right now. When firing on all cylinders, they're still capable of beating almost every team in the league. I'm not sure what the opposite of firing on all cylinders is, but that's where they are right now and even if they flip the switch, they'll have to win at Denver and at New England to reach the Super Bowl; a nearly impossible task.
The Texans offense has never seemed quite right this season. They've shown flashes of the offense we expected to see, but have been very inconsistent. For the season the Texans rank seventh in yards gained and eighth in points scored; a respectable total, but we all expected more from them. What or who is to blame for the drop off in production? I'll put most of that blame on the offensive line and the run blockers they've lost over the last couple seasons. Over the last two off-seasons they've lost a Pro-Bowl fullback in Vonta Leach, a good run blocking tight end in Joel Dreesen, and the right side of their offensive line when they cut Eric Winston and lost Mike Brisiel to the Raiders in free-agency. That loss in run blocking has not only hurt their run game, but has hurt the efficiency of the passing game which relies heavily on deception with the play action pass.
Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, and Matt Schaub all had Pro-Bowl seasons (though Schaub's selection is debatable) but the offensive line has held them back. The running lanes for Foster have been smaller and Schaub has seen pressure in his face with more frequency in comparison to the last couple seasons. Foster ran for his lowest yards per carry total of his career but still managed to rack up 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns, a credit to what a great running back he is. Likewise, Andre Johnson proved the people who claimed he was over the hill wrong with a monster season of 112 catches and 1,598 yards (a career best in yards).
Most of the blame goes to the offensive line, but not all of it; Schaub deserves some as well. His arm strength has always been an issue, but his decision making has also seemed to decline. Too often he's forced a pass deep instead of picking up 10 easy yards to a wide open receiver on an underneath route. He's also been late on a lot of passes, too often waiting an extra second to release the ball on a deep pass off a play action fake. In that extra second, a quick receiver like Andre Johnson is another 10 yards down field, a big deal for a quarterback without a strong arm. His arm strength is a limiting factor, but if he took the open underneath routes and threw the deep passes on time, that deficiency wouldn't be as noticeable. At one time I thought they could win big with Schaub, I no longer believe that.
Outside of J.J. Watt, almost the entire unit was a disappointment. Watt, who should be the runaway winner for defensive player of the year and finish in the top 5 for MVP, led the league in sacks, tackles for loss, and led all non-cornerbacks in passes defensed. Watt improved greatly from his rookie year, his sack total jumped up by 15, but unfortunately the rest of the defense did not follow his lead. The blame needs to be spread around, but the most noticeable drop off came from Connor Barwin who led the team last season in sacks with 11.5, but finished 2012 with only three. The biggest problem with the defense this season in my opinion has been the lack of a pass rush from everyone not named J.J. Watt. They ended this season with 44 sacks just like they did last year, but the pass rush hasn't been as effective. The 11.5 sacks from Barwin last year to lead the team represented 26% of the total team sacks. The team leading 20.5 sacks from Watt this season represent 46% of the team sacks. It's easier for the opponent to block when the pressure is coming from just one player.
The pass coverage struggled over the second half of the season. The linebackers in particular have been exposed in pass coverage after the injury that ended Brian Cushing's season. Overall I think the four starters in the secondary have played well but they have issues with depth. Kareem Jackson has improved and Johnathan Joseph is a very good corner when healthy, but they lost slot corner Brice McCain to injury and Alan Ball and Brandon Harris can't cover. All that being said, the quality of the pass rush and the quality of the pass coverage go hand in hand. If the pass rush was more consistent, their pass coverage would look better.
Special Teams: C
It was a rough year for the kick team. They ranked 23rd in kick off return average and didn't return a single kick or punt for a touchdown. On the other side, they ranked 27th in opponents kick return average allowed and 20th in opponents punt return average and allowed a combined three return touchdowns. Keshawn Martin has shown flashes and seems to be close to breaking a big return, but bottom line, none of their returners got the job done.
Donnie Jones wasn't spectacular in the punt game but he did a pretty good job. The Texans don't rank very high in net punt average, though most of that blame goes to the coverage unit, but Jones is tied for third in the league in punts placed inside the 20 yard line. Shayne Graham was solid inside of 40 yards, problem is, you sometimes need kicks over 40 yards to win. Inside of 40 yards, he was perfect this year. Beyond 40 yards, he went 11-18, just 61 percent. Hopefully Randy Bullock is ready to go next season.